Please Mister Please

Saturday 29 November 2008

Gerry Hatch, “Love Me Tonight” (197?).
(2’34”, 2.49 MB, mp3)

The mummified corpse of Jeremy Bentham reads inter-office emails.

Saturday 29 November 2008

I see you smoking a cigar with yr feet up on the desk, taking potshots at birdies out the windows.  Can you dig it?

Dick Without A Hole

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Dick Without A Hole (Red Detachment Of Women Mix) (2’11”, 2.85 MB, mp3).
It is recommended that this track is played on a continuous loop.

Bob the late-night talkback radio host is taking your calls on the open line about the issues of the day that matter to you, and our next caller is Gene. Gene wants to ask Bob a riddle. Bob doesn’t get it. Moving right along: Peter is next on the line. Peter also wants to ask Bob a riddle. Bob doesn’t know the answer, but Peter won’t tell him! Perplexed, Bob takes Phyllis’ call and asks her Peter’s riddle, but Phyllis just wants to hear Gene’s riddle again…

Dick Without A Hole was inspired by my love for the genteel stupidity of talk radio in Adelaide in the 1980s. The hosts craved the urgency and confrontation of shock jocks in other parts of the world but everyone in Adelaide, announcers and callers alike, were just too nice to carry it off. I still have a few cassettes of some of the better sessions, particularly the 9pm to midnight shift when the demographic got drunk and doddery.
This playful little dance of fumbled verbal exchanges and missed punchlines comes from one of those surviving tapes. Set to a cheerful, semi-funky shuffle, our four protagonists juggle the two dud gags back and forth, never grasping them yet never quite letting them drop. I find that their shared confusion in joke-telling gives a satisfying sense of mystery to this simple yet intractable form of social interaction. Their ritual is consecrated by the hallowed incantation of Messrs Kennedy and Gray, the two Magi of mid-seventies Australian comedy.
Dick Without A Hole made its public debut at John Beagles’ and Graham Ramsay’s Museum Magogo in Glasgow, 1999. After that it toured to PB Gallery in Melbourne, and was revived in 2002 for the Piped Music series at The Physics Room in Christchurch – more specifically, in the toilets of The Physics Room.
Now with the mp3 player of your choice, you too can enjoy Dick Without A Hole in the comfort of your own toilet. For best results, leave it playing on a continuous loop.

The Childermass, p.97

Monday 24 November 2008

…”I shouldn’t be surprised if one day I met my mother, I hope I shall; but I should if I met my father.”
He presses fiercely forward, his neat white teeth with their graceful absence of set or spread ambushed beneath the bristles of the squalid cavalier moustache, as the father-son motif crops up, with savage appeals from its stage-tomtoms.
“I consider the father a side-show a mere bagatelle – they are like the reason, overrated and not essential at all, that is the fathers – the male at all if it comes to that.”
He laughs, clearing up the atmosphere. Exit Fathers like a cohort of witches, turning tail at sight of the bristling righteous phalanx of incestuous masculine matrons, with hittite profiles, hanging out like hatchets just clear of the chest, Eton-cropped, short stout necks firmly anchored in asthmatic lungs, with single eyeglasses, and ten diamond corking-pins representing the decaceraphorous beast of the deliverance. They guard the child-herds. Revolutionary cockades bouquet’d with spatulate fig-leaves, symbolic of absolute divorce anti-family son-love and purple passion, dissimulate their abdominal nudity. Pullman barks fiercely: he is the gelded herd-dog. He barks at the heels of the Fathers, bearded despotic but now despatched.
“You don’t find it slightly intoxicating?”
Enter unobserved at the other extremity of the stage a small select chorus of stealthy matronly papas. They applaud as one man, community-singing the national anthem of the New Babel jazzed. They take up their position in the nursery modestly as regards The Average, with caressing eyes like head-lights of Santa Claus doing his rounds. Sweetly handwashing they stand aside, retiring Big Businessmen. Featuring as their spokesman, a super-shopwalker offers meat-pale sunkist fleshings of celanese silk stuffed with chocolates, crossword-puzzles, tombola-tickets for crystal-sets, and free-passes for war-films, to the million-headed herd of tiny tots of all ages but one size.
“I think it’s perfectly splendid discipline. I’m never quite certain myself, if it’s a pukka White Man’s policy. There’s the other fellow to be considered even if he’s a mere pawn or peon.”

A Certain Space in my Undermind

Saturday 22 November 2008

Kipper, who is currently traipsing wading around Indochina, briefly stayed at my house last year. She started reading my copy of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, then slipped it into her bag one day to take to work, forgetting that it was her last day and she was heading straight from the office to Heathrow to catch a flight to Australia.
I never, ever lend books to people, no matter how good a friend they might be. Good intentions cut no ice with me. Therefore, I consider it nothing short of a miracle that I got the book back, some months later. On its journey halfway round the world in a handbag it did, however, suffer a little wear and tear.

(Left, before; right, after.)
I hate losing books. I know it’s easy enough to find another cheap secondhand paperback of the Stein novel, but I had a particular soft spot for this copy because a previous owner had left a letter between the pages. In this case, I was less anxious to get the book than the letter returned, because it’s a beauty.
It was bought at Lloyd’s in Brisbane (stamped with the bookshop’s name on the flyleaf) and had been previously owned by a Cathy Daly. She presumably owned it before Gerard Lee, because her name’s on the flyleaf while his rather passive-aggressive claim to ownership is tucked away on page six. This G. Lee is evidently the Gerard who authored the enclosed letter, when he passed it on to a friend called Lynne. I think this just beats another favourite find for best piece of found writing I’ve discovered to date.

Dear Lynne,
Here’s Alice. Not bad but it palls in part; when the war’s on.
I’m nervous again, leaving today for the big place.
(I suppose you want to know my latest emotional response – I think about you sometimes, tenderly and I think you occupy a certain space in my undermind as I go busily about)
I’m feeling better.
Went to some dirty movies yesterday, (knew the box office girl) they weren’t very nice. This is the end of the page. Gerard X
It’ll be good to get back. Take care of your body and Stephens too!

Please Mister Please

Thursday 20 November 2008

James Tenney, “Collage No. 1: Blue Suede” (1961).
(3’23”, 4.87 MB, mp3)

Cheap Gigs: Ricordi and Spectralism

Thursday 20 November 2008

The shiny new King’s Place in King’s Cross has been hosting a series of new music gigs of widely varied stripes every Tuesday evening. On the 25th the Elision (sorry, ELISION) Ensemble is playing works by Liza Lim, Salvatore Sciarrino, Franco Donatoni, and others. I’m pretty stoked about this because I saw Elision, oh, lots of times in Australia and it’ll be nice to hear what they’re up to now. It’s part of music publisher Ricordi‘s 200th anniversary.
More info and tickets here (warning: that “dynamic price” thing means that 9.50 ticket price keeps going up it’s about 12 quid on the door.)

Also in London, there’s some Romanian (and British) spectralism happening at Conway Hall this weekend: Iancu Dumitrescu, Ana-Maria Avram, Tim Hodgkinson, and more! After my encounter with Gérard Grisey’s music last month I should really check this out too. No ticket price mentioned; the friend who gave me the heads-up thinks this means it’s free. He may well be right.

Bloomsbury Foyer With Ken Done Prints (2008)

Tuesday 18 November 2008

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Hard Drive Reformat!

Saturday 15 November 2008

Back soon maybe. Wish me luck!

From Light to Sound

Friday 14 November 2008

Southbank’s Klang festival was a convincing refutation – with many more to come, I expect – of the lazy canard that in the last thirty years Karlheinz Stockhausen descended from his once-lofty heights to write music that was invariably banal, inane, and absurd. (Similar erroneous assessments were made of Cage in the after his death.)
After completing his monumental seven-opera cycle Licht (Light), Stockhausen began a new cycle of twenty-four pieces called Klang (Sound) – one for each hour of the day. Sadly, he died with only twenty-one of them written, thus thwarting his next proposed project: a cycle of sixty pieces, one for each minute of the hour.
The second hour of Klang, Freude (Joy), is a 45-minute work for two female harpists, who must sing a fragmented setting of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus while they play. The material and form of the piece, as with other parts of Klang, are distillations from works made earlier in Stockhausen’s life, transformed into something completely new. The material is a 24-note row derived from his mid-50s masterpiece Gruppen; the form is a return to moment form which Stockhausen used in the 1960s.
The frenetic activity and complexity of Stockhausen’s earlier music has yielded to clarity and serenity. Later Stockhausen shows greater attention to the innate quality of sounds, and less on constructing relationships between them. Far from inane, the best of the late works show an equal sophistication to the earlier ones, but in a sensual rather than an self-consciously intellectual way. The episodic form and sustained atmosphere of Freude recall his 1968 piece Stimmung, and created a poignant, suspended state of timelessness that recalled the late works of Morton Feldman.
The singing harpists Esther Kooi and Marianne Smit played damn near flawlessly. As is frequently the case with Stockhausen, they were required to play from memory. Such was the level of dedication he demanded from his interpreters. Earlier in the week we had seen a virtuosic display by percussionist Stuart Gerber performing the fourth hour of Klang, Himmels-Tür (Heaven’s Door). For the best part of half an hour he executed an intricately choreographed sequence of attacks on an immense door, specially constructed from panels of differing woods to create a subtle palette of sounds. (Movie excerpt here.) Again, the piece was an impressive melding of music and theatre.
The final concert performance of the festival was Luzifers Tanz, a scene from the opera Samstag aus Licht. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opera staging, with the eighty-odd winds, brass, and percussion suspended in air in the shape of a face(! – nor did we get the musicians’ strike); but the performance by the Royal Northern College of Music was exemplary. It’s a remarkable piece, at once highly diverse and elaborate in its details and defiantly monolithic in its overall presence, following Stockhausen’s bizarre but internally consistent logic as the various sections of the gigantic big-band submit to the will of a cocksure, dinner-jacketed Lucifer. It’s also quite likely the only piece of concert-hall repertoire where the bass singer gets to make devil-horns gesture at the audience.
Oliver Knussen (“I… came to the conclusion that, far from being a hodge-podge of separately-commissioned bits stuck together with mystical glue, as some would have us believe, within [Licht‘s] massive architecture can be found some of the most impressive and compelling hours of music Stockhausen ever composed” – from his programme introduction) conducted the London Sinfonietta for Stockhausen’s last work, completed the night before he died: an orchestral setting of the charming set of tunes he wrote in the seventies, collectively called Tierkreis (Zodiac). True to the end to his principle of questioning convention, the chamber orchestra is arse-about: winds and brass in the front, percussion to the side, strings at the back with the cellos on the left.
Despite being a relatively normal piece by his standards, Stockhausen still managed to fill it with surprising twists and moments of invention (some of which felt a little rough and may well have been revised during rehearsals had he lived). In the penultimate piece, Taurus, a tuba player strolls onto the stage and plays an insolent solo for the orchestra to follow (“quite humorous technician with strong lungs” Stockhausen wrote in an email to Knussen) before standing beside the conductor. He finishes his solo with a flourish and a bow, earning a round of applause from the audience as he strides off-stage while the orchestra plays on.

Please Mister Please

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Tom Johnson, “Rational Melody XV” (1982). Eberhard Blum, alto flute.
(2’00”, 2.05 MB, mp3)

Three observations about the Karlheinz Stockhausen festival

Wednesday 12 November 2008

  • This was the most polyglot audience I’d seen at a concert series. A number of people had clearly gone out of their way to be there.
  • These gigs had the highest proportion I’ve seen of punters bringing scores with them. Not necessarily the scores for the pieces being played that night.
  • Queen Elizabeth Hall evidently has wi-fi. I hope the guy with the laptop in row K won whatever he was bidding for on eBay.
(The highlights post will appear tomorrow.)

Trans Repetition (Part Two)

Monday 10 November 2008

(Continued from Part One)
Stockhausen himself apparently decided that Trans should be played twice in an evening: a recurring dream, the red light giving it a hellish look. One of Samuel Beckett’s hells, a confined space in which the actors are condemned to repeat their futile actions. A misprint in the programme claimed the second performance would be ten minutes shorter than the first. I wondered if the repeat would suddenly black out in mid-phrase, like the ending of Beckett’s Play.
I previously suggested – in another parallel with John Cage, as it happens – that Stockhausen’s ideas had been given attention, for his good or ill, ahead of his music. The second performance, despite the addition of dramatic baggage to its theatrical presentation, allowed for closer attention to be paid to the writing for the unseen brass and winds, roiling ominously in the darkness, and for appreciation of the work more as music than as just a coup de théâtre.
So why did F announce she hated it as soon as the second performance concluded? She thinks it pushed itself too far, it revealed too much of its workings, and its strangeness quickly became overly familiar. It went from being a singular musical experience to a dramatic narrative, making itself more of an idea than a piece of music. I’m inclined to agree with her, and think it’s more true to its nature to be experienced as one experiences a dream: an illusion that passes before the senses and is gone, its lingering presence felt more than recalled in detail.

As it turned out, F also disliked Cosmic Pulses on its second hearing, in contrast to when we first heard it at the Proms. In the Queen Elizabeth Hall the sound felt too close, and came across as harsh, flat and dull as it hurtled around the relatively more confined space. (The eight-speaker audio system had a few glitches at the beginning, too.) The premiere of Urantia had similar problems, as it consisted of three of the twenty-four layers of electronic sounds that make up Cosmic Pulses, with the addition of a recorded soprano. “Oh my god,” whispered someone in the seats behind us when it was over, but the tone suggested more exasperation than revelation. A kinder environment would probably create the effect of otherworldly awe, but in this hall it became grating.
The larger space of the Royal Festival Hall would have been a much more sympathetic space for these electronic works, as the Sunday night performance of Stockhausen’s early Gesang der Jünglinge proved. All three works had the same method of visual presentation: a small, white spotlight projected onto the back wall of the stage. F didn’t care much for this either, thinking it lacked imagination.

This has all sounded rather negative, but the next post will dwell on the highlights of last week’s Stockhausen’s concerts. The popular assertion that “the rule of thumb must be: the earlier the piece, the better” is as nonsensical as the waning myth that all of Cage’s “chance” music sounds the same.

Trans Repetition (Part One)

Sunday 9 November 2008

So why did my lovely companion F love Trans after the first performance on Saturday night, and hate it after the second performance? Saturday’s concert, the first in the Southbank Centre’s series of gigs dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen, was a study of repetitions: two performances each of Harmonien and Trans, with an interval between.
The two versions of Harmonien, part of Stockhausen’s last, incomplete Klang cycle, were for bass clarinet and flute respectively, performed by their dedicatees and Stockhausen companions Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer. With their perculiar costumes and occasional twirling movements back and forth across the stage, they affirmed that for the last forty years of his life, theatre was an essential element of Stockhausen’s music. This has been a recurring theme throughout the series of concerts for the past week.
Another, less known theme that has become apparent over the week has been Stockhausen’s talent for melodic invention and development of his material – the actual ‘music’ part of the music. The transparent beauty and lyricism of many of Stockhausen’s later works have been overshadowed by his reputation for eccentricity and conceptual excesses. However, his earlier, more highly regarded works are no less hostage to reputation for their conceptual boldness – whether they be Gruppen, Gesang der Jünglinge, Mantra, or Trans.
(Is it my ignorance or is the discussion of the recent performances of Trans as ‘Classic Stockhausen’ a recent development? Is the dividing line between old, good Stockhausen and bad, new Stockhausen slowly creeping forward?)
F, herself a musician, was impressed with the performances of Harmonien. “You can’t write that down,” she observed, “you have to know the notes.” She also loved the Royal College of Music Orchestra’s performance of Trans. The performance and staging were excellent, with a strong sense of foreboding in the eerie red-violet lighting, the unseen winds and brass erupting from the darkness behind the string section which acted like automata, held in some sort of trance.
(Concluded in Part Two)

Stockhausen and Career Moves

Thursday 6 November 2008

There are a few simple parallels in the deaths of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Both died unexpectedly soon before their 80th birthdays, each leaving a legacy of posthumous premieres for a series of readymade memorials. Both also left behind a substantial number of critics who doubted that neither their reputations nor much of their music would survive for long without the personalities of their creators to sustain interest.
The proliferation of recordings and performances of Cage’s music since his death seems to have put his myth to rest. It remains to be seen whether Stockhausen can also elude the same, undeserved fate. The celebrations-cum-commemorations may or may not have helped to preserve and regenerate Cage’s reputation, but they will surely play a role in reviving Stockhausen’s.
Stockhausen is still usually regarded as The Leader Of The European Avant-Garde Who Lost It Some Time In The Seventies. As one preview of the Klang series of concerts at Southbank puts it: “The point of these festivals is to see what can be rescued from the absurdity in his later work.” Only two sections of his monumental Licht cycle of operas are being performed, but most of the music in the series comes from the last years of Stockhausen’s life.